The Asbestos door rattles as Sunny Mathew turns the heavy-duty lock assigned to safeguard his treasure. On the stairway beside me, a dog with a tilted head stares at a gramophone. As we step into Disc and Machines, India’s only gramophone and records museum, Mathew tells me the story behind the trademark image of this British record company. “This was originally a painting by Francis Barraud,” he says, pointing at the dog. “Nipper lingered around the phonograph listening intently when the machine reproduced his late master’s voice. The painting was purchased by The Gramophone Company, which later changed its name to HMV.”
For Mathew and his cousins, HMV102 is a proud keepsake of their childhood. The suitcase-shaped box gramophone, which bridged the distance between music and storytelling for the kids, was an accessory of the pooja room of his ancestral home. On afternoons after school, they would gather at the verandah, with the gramophone perched on the half wall, and listen to Biblical musicals. These shellac discs, even today, are a part of his collection, which includes over one lakh records, collected over decades-long foraging of bazaars and antique stores in India and abroad.
He opens a wooden cover and fidgets with the keys of a 1905 model of a graphophone, by the Columbian Phonograph company. “This one plays cylindrical records,” he says. “I got this from an antique store in Paris, where I had been invited to the French national library to talk about my museum, at a conference held by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual archives.” The museum’s first floor is almost exclusively dedicated to his record collection and ceiling-length display flexes that trace the origins and advancement of the gramophone. The fifth slide has a hundred different mugshots of early classical female singers from North India, including legends like Jankibai, Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan. There are no slides with faces of women singers from the south, but Mathew mentions a few names. “Most of them were devadasis in various courts, and little is known of them except their names and their shrill voices, which have captured an era through these records.”
Mathew has been lucky to have an understanding wife and supporting family, but he considers himself truly blessed to have worked for 36 years with the Kerala Forest Development Corporation. Often stranded in the heart of dense jungles in Wayanad, Gavi and Idukki, Mathew had entire evenings to himself. He would shut the doors to keep the wild animals away, put on a Beethoven symphony, carve a figurine from a block of wood and fix himself a dinner that comprised mostly of steamed tapioca and dry fish. “It is not even support, just mere tolerance from one’s family would mean a world of encouragement to a collector” he says, as he narrates an anecdote about his friend, who has to store his records in another house to please his wife.
Through his career, he travelled around collecting records and gramophones, but it was after his retirement in 2012 that he built a two-storied museum right in his backyard. The most pricey record in his collection is from Europe, one with a multicolored picture of the Pope, which cost Mathew Rs 8,000. The shelves have been labelled and categorized by language and genre. He sorts through various records and plays a Hindi dubbing of a classic Malayalam film, asking me to guess the original. The oldest records in the lot are some 7-inch Berliner gramophone records from 1888; from the Indian ones are some early musical dramas — Sita Swayamvara, Kovalan, Shakunthala.
I pick out one at random. It has the Indian flag on it, and typewritten are the words ‘Prime Minister’s message, 22nd October 1962’. “This was the year Nehru went for his famous peace talk with China, and came up with Bharath Cheen bhai bhai. But the Chinese army reached India before Nehru did, and the betrayal broke Nehru. This was his heartbreaking speech, broadcast on Akashvani.” In the patriotic genre, Sunny also has a collection of various versions of Vande Mataram. In a seminar on ‘India’s Independence movement and gramophone records’ in which he spoke about the rise of national music as a means to revolt against the British Raj, he included the various stages and renditions of the anthem, some in other regional languages as well. “The very first gramophone recording of the anthem was released on Nicole Record by Narain Chandra Mookherjee in 1905,” he tells me, trying in vain to locate the vinyl copy of it. It is amusing how historically and politically enlightening a musical museum can be. Somewhere, it is all about preserving the past. This could be the reason why the museum is also home to several other minor collections, including sewing machines, traditional Kerala household utensils and vintage cars.
The second floor is set aside for gramophones; box-type, portable ones, table tops, cabinet models, toy versions and a dozen other varieties, sourced from all over the world. These include rare predecessors of the gramophone, including the dictaphone and phonograph. “It was when I went in search of a record in a old record company’s warehouse in Bangalore that I stumbled upon a dictaphone of American origin, which is a rare find from the early 1900s.” The display also has examples of the early successors of the gramophone — tape recorders, transistor radios and VCRs. The museum is situated in a remote place, around 45 km from the nearest railway station, Kottayam. On a normal day, there might be no visitors at all. It is not a destination you just stumble onto — it is something you come in search of. Mathew isn’t overly concerned. “Such passion is meant to be shared only with those who are willing to traverse a few miles for their interest.”